Election to decide Quebec's future

The Associated Press

MONTREAL Q Curious bunch, these Quebecois.

They tell pollsters they prefer to keep their French-speaking province in Canada, yet they also say they're going to vote for the party that promises to lead them to independence.

Decision time is just two weeks away when voters in this province of seven million people elect a new legislature Sept. 12. At stake is not just the future of Quebec, but the shape of Canada.

Ever since the British sneaked up on the French in 1759 and thoroughly thumped them on the Plains of Abraham, French-speaking Quebecois have felt like second-class citizens.

Many believe their language, their culture, their very Frenchness is threatened by the sea of anglophones that surrounds them in the rest of Canada and the United States.

The Liberals, now under the leadership of Premier Daniel Johnson, have been in power in Quebec for nearly a decade and it's natural many voters would like to toss them out.

But the only alternative is Jacques Parizeau's Parti Quebecois. Parizeau has promised that if his party forms the next government, it will hold a referendum on independence within a year.

But when, as the latest polls show, 49 percent of the voters say they will vote for the Parti Quebecois, and only 44 percent say they will vote for the Liberals Q that isn't necessarily a vote for independence. That same Leger and Leger poll of 1,488 voters, with a 2.5 percent margin of error, also showed support for independence was only 40 percent.

Parizeau, beefy, short-sleeved and sweating, pumps up a political rally in a sweltering school cafeteria saying the reason he went into politics as a young man was "to build Quebec into a country." Loud cheers.

Johnson asks the simple question: How much will it cost? Can an independent Quebec survive outside the Canadian womb?

The Fraser Institute, a conservative Canadian think tank, says it will cost a lot. The share of the national debt Quebec would assume on separation would amount to about $108.4 billion, the institute said. That would make Quebec one of the most indebted countries in the world, ranking right up there with Madagascar and Jamaica.

Quebec also receives about $8.6 billion more from the federal government than the $22.3 billion it pays pay to Ottawa in taxes, income it would lose.

Nonsense, huffs Parizeau, a graduate of the London School of Economics.

"Not only are there no costs to sovereignty, there are extraordinary economic advantages," he told reporters as he toured a scrap metal plant.

He claimed the savings would be in the range of $2.2 billion. Just eliminating the duplication of the federal and provincial departments of revenue and communications would save $360 million, he said.

Johnson, also an economist, scoffs at Parizeau's mathematics. Partzeau's numbers are pure fantasy, Johnson recently said at a news confrence.

The five-point Parti Quebecois lead in the polls could translate into about 86 of the 125 seats in the legislature, a whopping majority. That anomaly occurs because most voters of the anglophone minority, who generally oppose independence and the PQ, are concentrated in a few districts around Montreal and in the Gaspe Peninsula.

But even many francophones who support a change of government oppose breaking up Canada.

"Times are changing," said Liberal candidate Jose Simon. "It used to be if you were a Quebecois, you had to be for sovereignty. Now, people are not afraid to stand up and say they are federalist."

The last time the PQ won power, in 1976, it also held an independence referendum. It lost that 1980 vote 60 percent to 40 percent.

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